Rapture of the Father
Maera woke gradually that morning. Her first awareness was that she was not alone in her bed, and her first impulse at that thought was to giggle wantonly. Oh right. That was how she'd spent her night. Before opening her eyes, she nudged her emotions, searching for embarrassment or self-consciousness, or worse, regret. Her soundings came back only with contentment. That was a good sign. She repositioned herself against Kelsey's side, and opened her eyes.
He glanced at her as she moved, and the warmth in his eyes sent a tremor of delight through her. "Good morning."
"Hi there," she said, smiling. He watched her face for a long moment, and she arched her eyebrows at him. "What is it?"
"You are absolutely beautiful," he murmured wonderingly. "You really are."
Despite the shameless manner in which she'd spent the previous night, she discovered she was apparently still more than capable of blushing. Self-deprecation seemed the best route. "You don't have to say that. You've already gotten me into bed."
He stuck his tongue out at her, playing along, but only just. "Well, maybe I'll want to get you into bed again sometime."
"Now that's a problem I don't think I'll mind having," she laughed.
He grinned at her, but then his face softened. "It's good to see you smile," he said softly.
"Should I not?"
"I guess I was a little afraid you'd wake up this morning and decide you'd made a terrible mistake," he replied, a bit abashed.
She propped herself up on her elbow, and touched his cheek gently. "No mistake. That was quite possibly the most sensible thing we've done since we met." His smile returned, and he grabbed her hand, kissing her knuckles. Maera found her mind turning to other places he could be kissing, and glanced at the room's lone window. The sun was rising, pink light slipping under the aged and unattractive curtains. She sighed, and sensing the change in mood, Kelsey began slowly kissing his way up her arm. She pulled away, laughing. "Oh, no you don't! We have things to do today!"
"I know," he said ruefully. "There are definitely impulses that can't be acted upon right now."
"No, not now. But…later will be a different story." She leaned up to plant a playful kiss on the end of his nose. "I promise." She sighed reflectively and sat up. She sat up, pulling the sheet with her, more out of comfort than modesty. "I have no idea what today holds for us; whether we'll have to bribe the Wizards, fight for her…hells, maybe they'll just let us take her, who knows? But we've come this far. One way or another, I'll get to see my best friend again today. And I'll get to introduce her to the man I love."
He beamed at her. "That's me, right?"
She rolled her eyes in good-natured mockery. "No, the other guy I slept with last night."
"Other guy? Wow. You were busy."
"Smartass," she laughed. She stood, and looked around the room, lips pursed and brow furrowed. "Do you have any idea where my shirt went?"
Sime saw them off that morning from the Vulgar Monkey's common room. "I'll keep an ear to the ground and a foot on Havarian," she said. "How long should you be before I get anxious?"
Maera shrugged. "I have no idea. Use your best judgment."
"I can do that," Sime replied. She clasped Maera's forearm, and nodded to each of them in turn. "Tymora be with you."
The town of Brynnlaw hugged a narrow strip of land between the bay and a smallish range of hills. Beyond those hills, just up the coast, the asylum known as Spellhold clung to a bit of sea-washed rock like a tall, thin man trying to keep his feet out of the water. The gates parted noiselessly before them, and the only sound was the lash of the waves as they approached the doors. There was no sign of recent activity in the courtyard. Paving stones were chipped, their mortar washed away, and planks of wood hung loose where nails had failed them.
The doors pushed open easily, unlocked and unguarded. The front hall was every bit as unkempt as the outside – the carpet was worn and ragged, the paint faded, the brass wall lamps dim and unpolished. The silence was absolute. Maera had not known entirely what to expect, but this had not been it. Getting into Spellhold had loomed in her mind as the first and largest hurdle, but this had been so easy. There was a prickle between her shoulder blades; the sensation of being watched was almost overpowering. She glanced over her shoulder at Jaheira, who looked about the hall with narrowed eyes. Something was very, very wrong here. Where was the other shoe, and when would it drop?
"Ah. You have arrived."
The voice came from the head of the hall, the speaker a tall, broad-shouldered figure in a hooded robe. It was naggingly familiar. "You are Maera, I believe?"
She swallowed, and nodded her head. "And you are?"
"I am the Coordinator of this facility. It is my understanding you have come here seeking a friend."
"How did you know that?"
A chuckle emanated from the hood. "You've hardly gone unnoticed in town. It would be difficult indeed to overlook the impression you made yesterday."
The disquiet in Maera's gut twisted. "If you know I'm here for Imoen, how about producing her and letting us be on our way?"
"Dear girl," came the amused response, "you must know it cannot be that simple."
"Couldn't hurt to try," Maera shrugged.
"Indeed not. I can, however, take you to her. Matters will be clearer then." He turned and headed for a door. Maera stared at his back.
"What's that supposed to mean?" There was no reply.
He led them through the long hallways, pausing occasionally to mention some bit of history or trivia about the place. Most of it was utterly meaningless to Maera, and even if it had not been, she was too on edge to give him much of an ear. The feeling of wrongness clung to her like spidersilk. They finally found themselves in a small, windowless sitting room, comfortably appointed with shabby, but still pleasant, furnishings. It was chilly, despite the temperate day outside. On the edge of a chair, staring into the brazier that tried to warm the room, sat Imoen. She did not look up as the door opened. Maera rushed to her, kneeling at her feet, trying to catch her eye, but Imoen did not acknowledge her. "Im? It's me. It's Maera." She gently brushed Imoen's cheek with the back of her fingers. There was no response. "I'm here. I've come to get you." She glared up at the Coordinator. "What did you do to her?"
"Only what was necessary. She is quite well. She simply…comes and goes. It would appear that she is gone now."
Maera stood, shoulders tensing in anger. "She was certainly not like this before she was brought here! Something has happened to her, and I think I'm owed an explanation!"
A hand grabbed her wrist, the grip painfully tight, and she started. Imoen stared up at her, her pupils glittering eerily large. "Too late."
Oh, gods, the dreams.
A chilly certainty spread through her like ice water. She faced the Coordinator again. There it was. How could she not have seen it? How could she have been so stupid? "Irenicus," she breathed.
The hooded head bowed once in a nod. "I am glad you understand. There is no need for any clichéd unmasking now."
"What have you done to her? What have you done to this place?"
"Ultimately, what I have done here is of little consequence to you, as your part in this drama is really quite fleeting." Irenicus turned his head to look beyond her. "Yoshimo, you have done as I ordered, I expect?"
Every head, paralyzed before, swung slowly towards the thief, who swallowed hard and nodded. "Yes." His mouth twisted around the next word. "Master."
"TRAITOR!" Minsc roared. His sword flashed from the scabbard, but Maera held up a shaking hand. There had to be more to this. There had to be a reason.
"Yoshimo?" she whispered, trying to keep the tremble from her voice. "What is he talking about?"
"I am sorry, fair friend," he said wearily. "There were…circumstances you were not aware of."
"You sold us out?!" Kelsey's voice was bitter with disgust. Jaheira's lips tightened as she shook her head, her expression saying everything. But Maera could not wrench her eyes from Yoshimo's.
He opened his mouth, but Irenicus spoke instead. "There is no need to waste time with explanations," he said smoothly. "Nor is there any need for excitement or heroics. Just sleep."
And that was all there was.
Every dream was different. It was always different. But it was always the same, too. Even if it never took the same form twice, it was a singular entity. It cloaked itself in whatever imagery it chose, wearing her worst moments like a favorite suit. It twisted pride. It fed on anger. It painted its face with blood and dressed itself the tattered skins of her foes. It was the voice that laughed when she killed. It was the darkness that lurked in the corners of her mind. It was the Dream. And it had her in its claws.
She stood before the double doors of Candlekeep's Great Library once more. And standing guard there was a figure in armor, cruel spikes and barbs ornamenting its every joint, its hands resting on the pommel of the massive broadsword driven point first into the ground. It looked like Sarevok.
"He ever emulated me," said the hollow voice. "He was everything I desired of my Children. He breathed in all I could give him and he wanted more. And yet, when the time came, you were the victor. Was it a fluke that you defeated one of my finest sons, wayward girl? You who have rejected me, denied me, tried to cast me out. Is this your childish rebellion? Did you think you could keep me at bay forever, prodigal? I am within you. I am your blood and bone. I am your instinct. I am your truth. And I have come to educate you."
"I have never needed any lesson of yours," she replied, but it was not her voice. Imoen stood beside her, speaking her words.
"You bathe your hands in blood, yet claim you do not need me. What heir says such as that to the one who could grant her patrimony?"
"Why do you persist in this?" she asked through Imoen. "You try over and over, but it will get you nowhere. I am not yours. I never will be."
"Deny me at your peril, girl. Madness is the only reward of those who refuse their true selves. Will you sink into insanity while you cling to your foolishness?"
The words stabbed, finding the chink in her armor and striking home. She had wondered those very things, late at night, when the images behind her eyes were still sharp and vivid. But then she felt the familiar anger well up behind the fear. Bhaal was not the whole of her. He didn't get to push her around.
There was a shudder, and stones from the uppermost turret crashed down around them. Imoen looked up in alarm, and there was a smile in Bhaal's voice when he spoke again. "You have shielded yourself in this place too long, daughter. Hidden behind the sage's walls and your pitiful attachments to the weak, like this one." He indicated Imoen with a contemptuous jerk of his head. "But no more. The stones are being pulled down, and when they are gone, only you and I will remain. And then what will you do?"
Her retort was harsh with anger. "The same thing I've always done. I've gotten along just fine without you. Why should that change now?"
"Stubborn. Always so stubborn," Bhaal said, shaking his head. "You still think you have a choice."
More masonry cracked around them. Imoen's voice grew panicked. "It doesn't matter! I've never wanted anything from you! Nothing you say or do will change that!"
The ground buckled beneath them. "This is none of my doing. Another undermines you from without, and I thank him for it." Bhaal extended an armored hand. "Flee from me no more, Maera. Let the walls crumble and accept what is yours by right of blood."
Imoen, acknowledging her for the first time, grabbed Maera fiercely by the upper arms, and stared up at her intently as the walls fell. "Are we not two parts of a greater whole, you and I? If our own defenses fail, we must stand for each other!" A wracking pain seized her, spreading from her chest, and she bent double, but Imoen's grip remained firm even as Candlekeep shattered around them. Bhaal laughed, and she could still hear it ringing in her ears as she woke.
Maera crawled back to consciousness slowly, becoming vaguely aware of the figures beyond the glass. A cage, of course. Where else would Irenicus put her? Her entire body ached so she was sure she must be bruised from head to foot. She rolled, slowly, agonizingly, from her back onto her side.
"I suppose I should not be surprised that you live," Irenicus said, squatting before the glass and eyeing her with cool detachment. "I would expect no less of you if it did not kill Imoen. But it is no matter. It will kill you eventually."
She rolled her head to look up at him. It hurt to breathe too deeply. "What did you do to me?" she croaked. Her throat was raw.
"I had a disease. You were my cure. A pity it will now result in your death, but I have work that must be done, and plans I must see through. You and Imoen were a necessary sacrifice." She dragged herself onto her hands and knees as he continued. "Most people's souls are so mundane, but yours is truly remarkable. Or, was, I should say. It's mine now."
She stared at him with all the incredulity she could muster. "You took my soul?" Incomprehension was just making her head ache more. ""So you wanted a Bhaalspawn soul…what did you need Imoen for?"
"Silly girl, you didn't know? You never suspected? A fellow Child of Bhaal has been under your nose all this time." He stood, and turned. "Come, Yoshimo, there is no need for such a glum face. Lacing the soup with the spell components was quite brilliant. You should be pleased with yourself."
The thief gazed down at Maera, his face expressionless. "Yes."
The effort of even being on her knees was almost too much. Tears of pain and exhaustion started in the corners of her eyes. "I thought we were friends, Yoshimo. Guess I was wrong, huh?"
A muscle twitched in his jaw. "I never meant for you to come to harm. Please believe me. If I could have prevented this…"
It surprised her how deeply it stung, seeing him there. "Why didn't you, then?"
"Do you know what happens when you disobey a geas?" he burst out, pressing his hands against the glass. "Do you?! I accepted it when I first entered his service - I DID NOT KNOW, Maera. I did not know what his plans were for you! I did not know I would-" He took a deep breath and stepped back. "But it doesn't matter now."
"No, it does not," Irenicus interjected smoothly. "Come, Yoshimo, you will feel better away from here." He gestured with one hand and Bodhi silently appeared at his side. "Since she has survived, dear sister, you may take her and her companions and dispose of them as you see fit." He leaned down, a small, ghastly smile crossing his strange lips. "Farewell, Child of Bhaal. We shall not meet again."